Nagorno-Karabakh: The European Kashmir

(Musa Ahmad, )

Nagorno-Karabakh: The European Kashmir

By Musa Ahmad 
With the independence of any nation comes liberation with a heavy price which mainly losing lives or getting separated from your loved ones, massive infrastructure damage, economic loss and many other factors which can easily decide the fate of a newly born state. The 20th century in particular has seen countries being torn apart due to their ideologies, the major events which made them happen include the two World Wars, Cold Wars & the fall of the Soviet Union.

Throughout these periods, the former Yugoslavia broke into Serbia & Croatia, leading to a bloody war, Ethnic tension between Pakistan & India over the disputed terrirtory of Kashmir, same applies for Israel & Palestine over Jerusalem, mind games between the Chinese & Taiwanese, these are the nations which have fought each other over territory and due to which these nations have a heavy diplomatic stance against each other. Just like them come the nations of Armenia & Azerbaijan, fighting over the self-proclaimed “Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh” for decades, a conflict which hasn’t been resolved to date.
The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of four frozen conflicts that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Legally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, it declared independence in 1991 and then defended that independence in a war with Azerbaijan that lasted until 1994. While it enjoys no international recognition of sovereignty, Nagorno-Karabakh has been de facto independent since its declaration and has been supported militarily and economically by neighboring Armenia.

The modern Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is slightly larger than the Pakistanicity of Karachi and has a population comparable to Gwadar. However, despite its modest size and small population, the mountainous territory has dominated and distorted the destinies of both Azerbaijan and Armenia for more than two decades. The conflict also has potentially wider geopolitical repercussions as oil-rich Azerbaijan has typically been supported by Turkey and the US, while Russia has typically favored Armenia. Armenia supports Nagorno-Karabakh on the basis that it is populated by an Armenian majority that has declared independence under the principle of self-determination.

Thus, although the region may be little-known outside of geopolitical circles, Nagorno-Karabakh’s unresolved status remains one of the most potentially explosive issues in the volatile Caucasus region today and could result in a major conflict among the world superpowers.

While the name is ancient and specific reference unclear, the region can be well understood through its name: “Nagorno” is a Russian term meaning “mountainous,” while “Karabakh” is an amalgamation of Turkish and Persian words that together mean “black garden.” Nagorno-Karabakh features several small, fast-flowing rivers cutting several deep ravines through mineral-rich mountainous country on their way to a central valley. The result is a rugged, yet agriculturally abundant land – a garden with rich black soil that is likely to get as much shade as sun.

Another, political reading of the name might be as a beautiful mountain garden that has provided the backdrop for dark events. Nagorno-Karabakh was long contested by the Ottoman, Persian, and Russian Empires as part of the Caucasus Mountains, which formed a formidable natural barrier between those rivals. Nagorno-Karabakh is of particular interest as it represents an overlap in the declared homelands of two different peoples: the Christian Armenians and the Muslim Azerbaijanis. Under the nearly perpetual conquest of the area, one of these two groups was generally favored by whichever side was in power at the time. This helped build a centuries-old animosity between the two geographically intertwined peoples.

By the time that Soviet planners attempted to draw ethnic republics in the Caucasus, the region between Armenia and Azerbaijan was an irreconcilable mess. Some compensation was made via a system of enclaves and autonomous provinces and the situation remained relatively stable while both republics were part of the larger and more powerful Soviet state. When that state began to crumble, however, a powerful arbiter was lost and ethnic tensions flared into war.
The majority-Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh attempted to declare independence from Azerbaijan just two months after Azerbaijan declared independence from the USSR. Azerbaijan invaded the territory and was declared as an Azerbaijani Territory in 1991. Armenia joined the conflict and helped secure for Nagorno-Karabakh not only its de facto independence, but also de facto expanded borders. While Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh was completely enclosed within Azerbaijan, Armenia now effectively controls the narrow strips of land to the west and south for it, giving the unrecognized state direct borders with Armenia and Iran. Thus, Nagorno-Karabakh secured access to the outside world and the ability to conduct limited trade.

Although the tiny state saw much of its infrastructure destroyed and its population flee during the war, it was quick to rebuild with substantial assistance from Armenia and from the numerous and relatively wealthy Armenian diaspora abroad.

When the Soviet Union broke in 1991, the President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the region’s simmering ethnic tensions to be expressed openly.Demands for greater cultural, economic, and linguistic freedom by the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh escalated to demands for full reunification with Armenia as previously declared in 1988. Ethnic clashes broke out later that year, with anti-Armenian riots claiming the lives of many in the Azerbaijani cities of Baku and Sumgait. Isolated attacks on Azeris occurred in Nagorno-Karabakh and then spread to Armenia. Moscow placed Nagorno-Karabakh under martial law winter of 1988, but the weakening state could do little to reconcile the two factions. Fighting grew even fiercer and, by November 1989, the Soviets resigned the situation, lifting martial law without a solid peace plan in place. The situation spiraled out of control after Azerbaijan declared independence from the USSR in October 1991, and Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan in December 1991. Full-scale war erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

An estimated 15,000-20,000 people, including civilians, were killed during the fighting and hundreds of thousands displaced: some 200,000 Armenians left Azerbaijan; 185,000 Azerbaijanis fled Armenia; 50,000 Azerbaijanis left Nagorno-Karabakh; and as many as 500,000-600,000 Azerbaijanis fled Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani lands. Thousands of refugees and displaced persons still languish in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Numerous cases of ethnic cleansing were reported, such as the Khojaly riots in February 1992 that claimed the lives of hundreds of Azeris.On May 12, 1994, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire, but a treaty was never signed and status of Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved.

Dozens of soldiers are killed along the line of contact between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces each year, and the balance of power may be tilting back towards oil-rich Azerbaijan, which increased defense spending from $175 million in 2004 to an estimated $3.1 billion in 2011. Rhetoric on both sides remains fiercely militaristic, with Azerbaijan, for instance, reacting to plans to rebuild an airport in Nagorno-Karabakh by saying that it would shoot down any unauthorized aircraft – including passenger craft – over its internationally recognized territory. In 2010, Azerbaijan signed a mutual assistance pact with Turkey, its only regional ally, with also major alliance with Pakistan & the US. Meanwhile Armenia has a major regional support from Russia and major alliance with India.

Despite its lack of international recognition, the conflict has affected thousand of lives in the Caucasian territory, for a region which has the potential of becoming a perfect democratic nation with an economy relying on tourism & development. With proper attention the Nagorno-Karabakh region can prove to be a great place and hopefully peace between the Armenians & Azerbaijanis is on the cards.


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